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How to read this novel

January 23, 2012

Hi, reader out there!  You’ve stumbled on a novel written as a series of blog posts, did you know that? I posted each chapter gradually, so the last chapter is the last post, and Chapter 1 is way back there as my first post.  If you’d like to read from the start, please click on Chapter 1 (top right-hand corner of this blog page) and go for it!  I’d love to know what you think of my story, so please send me a comment if you are so inclined.

Thanks for reading.  Enjoy the ride.

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Encore

March 7, 2011

All I got to show

Is this gravel path and a song or three

But all I know

Is that all that matters is you and me.

Song for Sebastian, J Cassady

The warrens of Kennedy airport were awash with the usual combination of bright tourists and lacklustre business people, all waiting to catch the red-eye to somewhere.  Two young Australian women of the first category, with flights delayed and their airport blockbusters read to that middle section that cries out for them to be chucked in the nearest bin, were playing a game of ‘guess the type.’

German backpacker.  Japanese business group.  Washington diplomat.  Journalist on way to war zone.  More Washington diplomats.  Professional guitarist.

‘Guitarist?  Where?’

‘Over there.  Cute.’

‘Hey, I know that face.  Let me think.’

‘Definitely a muso.  The scruffy under-fed look, morning hairdo.  The guitar case with all those stickers is a dead giveaway.  He’s on tour.  Long legs … kyooot!’

‘He could be putting it on.  Could be a law student and lives at home with mummy and daddy.  The guitar case is filled with dirty washing, and the rock star act is to impress his girlfriend.’

‘Or boyfriend.’

‘Yeah, you can’t assume by a person’s stuff.  Who you are depends on your attitude, not your luggage.  But I’ve seen that face …’

‘Now you got me confused.  You mean that German backpacker was really a banker or an arms dealer?  But she was wearing socks with her sandals.’

‘I got it.  He’s that guitarist from the Monsters.  They supported Dylan in Boston.  Remember how we forgot to get tickets?’

‘Doesn’t tell us anything about the German backpacker.’

‘He’s reading something in his lap.  Doesn’t look real happy.  Maybe it’s bad news.’

***

Joel read the email print-out again although he knew it by heart.  All it said was, Come home at once.  I need you.  It’s urgent.  Seb. Sent via Cheri’s legal office where Sebastian worked part-time.  What did it mean?  He turned it sideways for a different view.

As soon as it had arrived on Wednesday, Joel had booked his flight out of New York.  He’d have left Thursday if it hadn’t taken this long to cadge the airfare from Claw, the band’s self-appointed finance manager.  You didn’t disobey a summons like that, not when you’d been hoping for just such an order.  Not after three years of almost never hearing from the guy.  When he was still your best friend and nothing would ever change that.  When you still ached whenever you thought about him, which was quite a lot, and not just at bedtime.  About bloody time for the summons, even if it was a cryptic one.

The ‘I need you’ bit was gratifying but a worry.  A person could be needed for lots of reasons.  To hold your hand as you died, to give you advice on your love life, to cough up your rent when you were short, to make up the numbers, go your bail, join you on stage, tell you to cut the crap or hang in there.  And why ‘urgent’?

‘Hang in there.’  That had been the content of Sebastian’s last epistle, six months ago.  Just as cryptic but worse because it had been a stop sign instead of a summons, a flat palm in the face rather than this bossy beckoning.  The ‘hang in there’ had been in response to a long drunken letter, which had been in response to a third-hand message Joel wasn’t even supposed to have heard.  And it hadn’t started there.  The whole thing had been touched off by Tom’s visit to New York a year ago.  At least, that’s when the hope had entered Joel’s mind …

Until then, what news he had received of Sebastian had been all about the dude’s public life, what he was doing rather than feeling.  Suspiciously so.  Made you wonder if people were concealing that he’d shacked up with someone.

Cheri’s letters were often filled with Sebastian because she’d become a mentor to him in his progress through law school.

‘Sebastian will make a wonderful lawyer because he’s passionate about justice,’ Cheri wrote, ‘and for the same reason he’ll never make a cent.’

Pinky wrote that Sebastian had helped him and Marie get a Drug and Alcohol Worker, a Housing Worker, a Mental Health Therapist, two Case Managers, and a Team Leader when Neo’s hormones started to kick in.  Sebastian was still trying to help them get rid of these people now that Neo had gone back to school and was sorted.

Steph emailed that, ‘S is busy but always comes around to visit me and Mum to escape his house where no one does the washing-up.’

Bylinda wrote that, ‘S is getting political.  Secretary of the Queer Council at uni this year.  President next year, we reckon.’

Come on, people!  What about, ‘And now for the juicy part.  S is sleeping with …’  Well, it was probably better not to know.

When Tom arrived in New York last year, Joel had braced himself for the tell-all finally.  He dumped Tom’s bags on the fold-out couch, poured beers, and said, ‘Right.  Spill.  I want the lot.  Don’t hold back any of it.  Don’t … don’t spare my feelings.’  Clenched his teeth and waited.

In the same pesky way as everyone else, Tom filled him in on other people’s gossip before even mentioning Sebastian.  Steph was enjoying life with her mum, and her job with Greenpeace was going grouse.  The week before, she’d proudly broken three teeth climbing a ship carrying woodchips to Japan.  Bylinda – Tom gulped his beer – had joined the Queer Council.  Exploring her sexuality and all that.  Made no difference to him, he added, downing the second half of his glass, because it had been over a year since they split up.  Thirteen months and five days, to be exact.  Kimberly was in and out of detox, but was training to be a hair stylist.

‘I know.  She’s coming to New York at Christmas.  I said we’d put her up.  Go on.’  Joel made winding motions with his finger.

Back home, Marc had stayed on at the mill and turned it over to plantation timber.  Graham had come home, and they were managing the mill together.  They’d done up that skate bowl out there because the mill was still a popular place to sesh, although the Council had spent real money on the new skate park at the courts and it was bitching good.

‘Only get there myself when I go home to visit the oldies,’ Tom said.  ‘By the way, Mum told me she’s on shift with your mum at the op shop.’

‘Yeah, Mum told me too.  Never says how she is, never mentions Dad, but I know the ins and outs of the whole town like I’m the Bonang Street traffic cop.  Go on.’

‘Of course, you want to hear the latest on Marcus,’ Tom resumed.  ‘He won his final appeal, and now he’s suing the cops.  Looks like they ran out of ways to put him in gaol.  He was on the news, cracking a champagne bottle with Bad Blood’s missus.  He’ll never work in timber again and he’s bankrupt, but he’s got a new venture growing rice in the outback.  The come-back kid, they call him.’

‘As long as he doesn’t come back to our part of the world.  But we digress.  Go on, go on.’

Which brought them, at last, to Sebastian.

‘Let me tell you what I’ve been doing,’ Tom said.  ‘Well, let me show you.’  He opened his suitcase and took out two magazines, separate editions of Grind: Journal of Australian Skateboarding.  In the centre spread of the first one was an article by Tom himself, a zany account of a hoon trip taken by him, Sebastian, and some others Joel didn’t know.  Pictures of Sebastian in the air above skate parks up and down the east coast of Australia.

‘I’m taking this freelance journalism seriously,’ Tom told Joel, pointing out the by-line at the end of the article which described him as a ‘budding muckraker.’  ‘Took all the photos myself except this one.’

Joel stared over Tom’s hand at a picture of someone chundering into the gutter beside a neon sign of lips and legs.  Couldn’t tell who.  A big night in Newcastle ended untidily for some, the caption read.

The article in the second magazine was more enlightening.  It was an interview of Sebastian by Tom.  Under a beautiful photo of windswept hair and soulful eyes, Sebastian was cast as ‘the whoop-arse amateur champ who disses the sponsors.’  The first questions dealt with why he refused sponsorship, answered nicely and not dissingly, and what he thought of the commodification of skate culture, then came the interesting bit.  Question: What do you think about most?  Answer: My best friend.  Question: Even when you’re skating?  Answer: Even when everything although he’s not around at the moment.

‘He didn’t like the goof-ball photo,’ Tom explained, ‘but the questions are cool, yeah?  Nonconformist and offbeat, which is what everyone wants these days.’

‘Who’s his best friend?  Has he got a new one?  Tom, tell me!’  Unable to contain himself any longer, Joel clutched and tore the magazine from Tom’s hands.

‘So you still care?  From what Nga and Claw say, you’re not exactly celibate.’  Tom’s eye was wry.

‘Me?  You should see them.  It’s the pressures of touring.  And, besides, I’m a long way from home and Sebastian’s given me no hope.  I’m a one-man man.  Really.  At least, I would be.’

‘Well, don’t worry about him.  He’s fine,’ Tom said as if that finished it.  He went over to a mirror and checked his teeth for foreign objects.  ‘Now, isn’t it about time we went to a bar?  One with a lot of girls who like guys, please.’

For six months after Tom’s visit, Joel let himself taste the teasing hope contained in that second article.  He was too bloody busy to stew on it, but he did allow himself to wonder in the odd quiet moment what might happen if he was to suggest the question to Sebastian again.  Wasn’t a huge issue, didn’t interfere with work or play, certainly wasn’t going to turn into a stomach ulcer of worry, but there it was.  A possibility.   And it tasted pretty damn sweet.

Then came the phone call.

Joel could tell Claw was talking to Steph by the way the punk downplayed the amount of partying they were doing.  ‘… and sometimes we have an after-gig drink with the people backstage … Groupies?  No way, comrade.’  A long silence followed, punctuated by Claw’s grunts.  After he hung up, he said nothing, but hummed to himself and kept glancing at Joel.

At last, the punk flicked off the TV and said, ‘I have to tell you this.  It’s the best gossip.  My ex says your ex is still in love with you.  You’re still number one apparently, incredible as that may seem …  Hey!  You’re not ringing her back!  If she finds out I’ve told you, my life is finished, but not before I make sure yours is too!’   Joel was not ringing Steph.  ‘Number for Qantas, please,’ he said into the phone.  Got the number, wrote it down to make sure, dialed again.  ‘I’d like to make a flight reservation –’

Claw’s hand slammed on Joel’s, cutting the line.  ‘What the fuck are you doing?  You’re not going back to Australia on the strength of one message you weren’t even supposed to hear.  Anyway, the reason I’m not allowed to tell you is he doesn’t want you to know.’

‘What?  Why?’  Joel had an urge to throw the phone at Claw’s head.

‘I dunno.  Something about not being ready.  He’s still pissed with you.  Maybe he doesn’t think you’re ready.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that, not him.’  Joel hit redial.

‘And you don’t have the money for the airfare.’

‘I’ll sell my guitar.  Yes, hello.  I’d like to book a flight –’

‘Not if I smash it first!’

Joel looked up to see Claw with the guitar raised high above the coffee table in the middle of the hotel room.  The only thing stopping him strangling the punk now was that he wouldn’t be able to get the money out of him if he did.

‘Think about it, man,’ Claw pleaded.  ‘You can’t fuck off now.  We just scored our first big record deal, and we’re supporting Dylan next month.’

Joel took in his friend’s white-faced panic, and all the work, obsession, and – it had to be admitted – joy that lay behind it.  They shared all that, and he was about to give it away.

The door opened, admitting Nga with bags of take-away.  ‘Whassup?’ she asked, turning from the raised guitar to the raised phone.

‘I’m sorry,’ Joel said.  He snapped the phone shut, smarting and shocked at himself.  ‘Put that moment of madness down to stage fright.  I want to meet Bob.’

Later, when the danger was past, he asked Claw, ‘Still in love with me?  Those were his exact words?  Did Steph say that?’

‘No, I made it all up.’

‘You what?’

‘Look, I’m not gonna tell you anything again, way you react.  Let’s just drop it.’

But that night, with a slug of Scotch in his stomach for courage, Joel wrote Sebastian a long letter.  I saw this skater with no arms ripping tricks in Union Square.  Thought you’d be interested … The letter descended with the level of the Scotch bottle into writhing honesty and love-sickness.  I’m learning so much, and I’m happy and at home with myself.  Like you always said, which I never got before, the world’s an exciting space.  Oh God, it sounds like I’m saying I’ve changed and I want you to take me back … That’s exactly what I’m saying.  Seb, please tell me it’s not over.  If I could just see you … He sealed the letter without re-reading it and, in the morning, posted it before he could change his mind.

A fortnight later, came this reply on the back of a plane-spotter’s postcard divided into photos of different types of aircraft, helicopters, fighter planes and the like: Hang in there.  Love, Seb.

The postcard was no doubt because he didn’t have email at home and couldn’t be bothered with a letter.  The ‘love’ was just what you wrote.  It came at the end of a gruelling week for the Monsters in which they played a big show with Bob Dylan where the grouchy old dude didn’t even speak to them.

And now this summons.  This time, Claw had been grudgingly sympathetic and allowed the flight, mainly because they’d just finished recording, and it felt like everyone needed a good sleep.

***

Joel sighed, folded and pocketed the paper like a clean hanky.  He’d soon find out what it all meant.

Two chicks in the next row caught his eye and beamed at him.  He looked over his shoulder then back at them.  They were still smiling so he raised a tentative lip.  Did he know them?  They sauntered over.

‘Hi!  You’re in the Monsters.  Dig your music.’

‘Oh, thanks.  So you’ve seen us play?’

‘Um, no, but we burned – bought! – one of your CDs.’

‘There’s only one so far, actually.  Next one’s due out at Christmas.’

‘Cool.  Um, can I have your autograph?’  One of them heaved a truly huge novel and a pen at him.

He signed the back cover.  Just his name and the band’s.  Never gave a dicky message.  Only ever say what you mean, he’d learned that lesson.

The other woman mumbled something.

‘Sorry?’  Joel leaned forward to hear.

‘Have you heard of the mile-high club?’ she said.  ‘Because, you know, if we’re on the same flight, we could …’

Joel was perplexed.  Mile-high club?  He put his head on one side and grimaced, trying hard to think of what it reminded him.

She was going bright red, shaking her head.  ‘Oh, forget it,’ she ended, plucking her friend’s sleeve and edging away.  ‘Have a nice flight and sorry to bother you.’

‘No, it’s okay,’ he said as they backed off, wondering what had frightened them.  ‘Come say hello if you ever get to a gig.’

With a whoosh, a memory of the mile-high club swept over him, and he whipped Sebastian’s postcard out of his back pocket.  This time he looked at the side he usually ignored, all those planes and helicopters.  No magic carpet, but still …  The hope that had advanced by inches for a year took a big leap.

***

As the plane landed, Joel looked out on a typical Melbourne spring day.  A fretful sort of day.  The sun might emerge, but it might pour with rain.  What if Sebastian wasn’t there to meet him?  There’d been no reply to his email giving flight details.  What if Cheri or Sharon was there with a sad face, to say they had to go straight to the hospital to see Sebastian before it was too late?  What if it wasn’t Cheri but his parents?

In the Customs lounge, he calmed himself with deep draughts of Melbourne air.  If nothing else, he’d get to hear magpies again.  With that thought, the voices around him turned into the sweet chiming of birds in a forest as if the song had simply spanned time.  And perhaps that was it.  Even an interval of three whole years could be just a silent beat, the note you hear when a drummer grips her cymbal between thumb and forefinger to pinch off the sound.  There was no break, no interruption, it all counted, it was all part of the beat.

The double doors of the concourse opened.  People hurrying, suitcases, numbers tumbling on their boards, a full white sky through the glass …

There he was!  Leaning over the railing, waving and smiling and looking exactly the same only more so.  Joel’s heart beat against his ribs.  Seb, Seb, Seb.

Dazzled, he walked up and dropped the guitar he’d been so careful to stow in the overhead locker.  It fell at Sebastian’s feet with a clatter.  They clinched so tightly that Joel could only breathe in.  That inward breath went on and on.  He buried his face in Sebastian’s neck and with the jangling part of his mind let out all his crowded feelings, shaking and crying.  The other part of his mind, the smooth breathing-in part, took in the forest scent of Sebastian, the pulsing of his neck, the warmth of the blood in his veins, the strength of the bones beneath the flesh, the realness and closeness and dearness of him.  When Joel drew back at last, Sebastian’s eyes were streaming too.  They laughed through their tears and hugged again.

Out on the freeway, as Sebastian manoeuvred Tom’s borrowed car through the traffic, Joel took out the email.  ‘What’s with this?’ he said, looking Sebastian over.  The guy didn’t appear sick or downhearted in any way.  In fact, he looked totally healthy and fantastic.  A bit taller maybe.  Still had the earring.

‘Oh, that.’  Sebastian smiled.  ‘I had to make sure you’d come.  And it is urgent.  I promised the Queer Council a star attraction for our music festival, and you’re it.  It’s on in a couple of weeks.’

Joel sank into his seat.  Thank God, thank God, and it might even be time to start believing in God.

‘So what was ‘hang in there’?’ he ventured, feeling braver.

Sebastian’s smile stretched broader than ever.  ‘It was after that letter you wrote.  You know me, Joel.  Some things I can only respond to in person.’

Staring at Sebastian’s profile, Joel thought, And you didn’t have the money to come to America and crawl in my window, and you knew I couldn’t come home to you just yet.  Was that it?  Oh, please, let that be it.

‘What are you thinking, Joel?’

‘You really want to know?’

‘Wait till we get home.  I have to concentrate on driving.’  There was a P plate in the corner of the windscreen.

Sebastian’s house was like the one they’d talked about at school.  It had a big veggie garden and even a dog called Contessa.

‘Neo found her hit by a car,’ Sebastian said, as the mutt waggled around his legs.  ‘Told me I had to keep her.’

He led Joel through the empty house, past messy bedrooms to his own.  ‘Dump your stuff,’ he said cheerily, walking out again.

Joel stalked around the room.  Queen-sized futon, but only one pillow which was a good sign.  An open book on the bedside table, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of GrassVery good sign.  Under the bed, a skateboard sticking out.  Also a good sign, it confirmed the guy didn’t give up on things.  Photos on the wall.  Now, this was interesting.  One of Sharon, Sebastian, and a rangy grown-up Veronique.  Steph with a megaphone at a rally.  Bylinda looking sweeter than ever with a shaved head.  Sebastian and three strangers behind a trestle table with books and a banner for the Queer Council.  That was all.  Oh shit.  No Joel up there.  However, on a low bookshelf made from bricks and pine planks, another excellent sign, a DVD labelled, The Monsters, Mercury Lounge (my song at 40 mins).  Tom had filmed their gig in New York.  So Tom had given the film to Sebastian, who especially liked to watch the part where Joel performed that love song.  Goody.

‘Tea or coffee?’ Sebastian called from somewhere.

‘Neither,’ Joel answered, following the voice to the kitchen.  Throat as dry as a north wind, but he had something to ask before he could risk holding a cup.

Sebastian faced the stove with the kettle.  Joel coughed and looked around.  Cups, cutlery, sink, fridge, stove, ceiling, floor, four walls, dog called Contessa.  Yes, everything seemed to be in order.

‘So,’ Joel gulped.  ‘You single?’

Sebastian wheeled around.  ‘No.’  But he was grinning.

‘Okay, I see,’ Joel said, his voice a mere scratch.  Any moment now, the floor would crack open to reveal tongues of flame into which he’d gratefully slide.

‘No, not single,’ Sebastian went on.  ‘I sort of got married three years ago.’

‘Married?’  Joel blinked in confusion.

Still smiling, Sebastian came and put gentle arms around Joel’s waist.  ‘Don’t you remember?’ he said.

Taking Joel’s hand, he led him back to the bedroom and took out from under Walt Whitman on the bedside a photo in a silver frame and something else like a jewel.  He handed them to Joel.  The jewel was a piece of hardened sap, half a piece actually.  Joel knew where the other half was.  Among his socks in his bag.  The photo was of the two of them, kissing under a white archway.  The archway was a sheet, and the photo had been taken by Bylinda at the hobby farm at a party to celebrate two births and a number of unions.

Joel stood the photo on top of Walt and placed the sap jewel in front of it.  Straightening, he turned and said, ‘I love you.  I want you.  And I don’t think we should be apart any longer.’

Sebastian’s eyes shone.  ‘I missed you so much,’ he whispered and took a step forward.

***

Many days later, still surfacing, Joel said, ‘Come with me when we tour again.’

‘Yes, I want to,’ Sebastian said.  ‘And I want to come to America with you and meet Bob.’

‘Meet Bob?  He didn’t even talk to us when we played at his concert.’

‘Perhaps he’s on his last legs.’

‘Nah, I don’t think so.  You know, a great gig never really dies.’

‘And I want to visit Walt’s tomb.  He’s not talking either.’

‘No worries.  We got the words, we got the music.  What more do we need?’

 

The End (really)

 

 

 

Chapter 39

February 25, 2011

Till life do us part

Growing Up Blues, J Cassady

‘In the back!’

Joel climbed into the backseat, smiling to the blackness.  What a name – Monster Snog.  The Monsters for short?  When you fitted inside yourself, you could carry off any kind of label.  Look at Pinky and Neo.  Look at Sebastian.  Sharon said she gave her kids fancy names ‘to give them a kick-start in life.’  But Sebastian wore his name as a musketeer might fling a velvet cloak over one shoulder.  So, Monster Snog.  It would do fine.

The lights of the hobby farm came into view.  The parents must have left in a hurry.  Someone had probably rung them to say they knew where Joel was.

‘Into your room!’  As soon as they got inside.

Joel obeyed, knowing the routine.  Papa bear would settle himself in his chair while his wife brought him a strong coffee, giving the man time to marshal his thoughts.  When he’d got them in order – charges, evidence, appropriate punishments, words to pronounce them with – he would march into Joel’s room to deliver.  This time, the judgment would be final.

Joel looked around his small room, nostalgic for the place already.  All these years, he’d slunk around it as though he could never escape its mazes.  Once upon a time, it had just been a bedroom.  Way before the Snowball Resort, papa bear had a different routine.  He used to come in and tell fairy stories at bedtime.  ‘… and then papa bear said, Who’s been sleeping in my bed?’  The man was good at the different voices, his own voice had a musical quality.

No time for reminiscing.  Joel put his guitar in its case and packed CDs around it.  Sebastian could have them.  A few clothes, money.  Not much spare change in the wallet, a few coins at the back of a drawer.  Money would be an issue.

More important was what to say.  Just how did you put these things?  Once upon a time …?  You had a duty to be kind, probably.  Not to take revenge.  After all, they’d been at your birth and fed you when you were small, and the lack of communication and trust and confidence had always gone both ways.

He took one last look around to make sure he was ready and then, not waiting for his father, walked out and into the living room.

‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ he said from the doorway.

It looked like they were about to come in and start on him, anyway.  The man was hoisting himself out of his chair.  He stayed propped on his elbows for a moment then plopped back in surprise.  The woman held the empty coffee cup.

‘Save your excuses.  They don’t wash with me anymore,’ papa bear said.  ‘You’re heading for Queensland in the morning.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Oh yes, you are.  You’ve imposed on my good will long enough.  All year, you’ve brazenly gone from bad to worse without so much as a backward glance, it appears.  It’s as if you don’t care that you make nothing of yourself.  I … I despair of you.’

Something snapped.  Joel felt it in the back of his neck, and it was kind of a relief.

‘It’s not that I don’t care,’ he said, scratching his head.  ‘I’ve just been too busy.’

‘Too busy?  What the devil do you think you’ve been doing?  How dare you –’

‘I spent a lot of time in bed with Sebastian actually.’

‘What!’

The coffee cup clattered to the floor.

‘Yes, his bed mainly.  But yours too.  When you were away.’

Papa bear levitated from his chair, seemingly propelled by the large volume of blood that had rushed to his face.

‘That’s when we first, you know …’  Joel made his right thumb and forefinger into a ring and poked his left forefinger in and out of it.  ‘But it wasn’t the first time the other way.  That was in the forest.’  Now Joel’s left thumb and forefinger made the ring, and his right forefinger slid in and out.  ‘So, yeah.  Busy, busy, busy.’

The woman gurgled and clutched her throat.  The man drew himself up and extended a shaking signpost arm at the door.

‘Get out … of this house!’  The voice was no more than a wheeze through papa bear’s constricted windpipe.

***

As Joel gathered his stuff from the bed, he heard a cough behind him.

‘When will I see you again?’ she asked.

She sounded like a lost child, and it softened him almost to breaking.  When he turned, he could see in her pink eyes that her question was genuine.  She just wanted to know because she thought he was in charge.  And he was!

‘I don’t know, Mum.  I’ll ring you from Melbourne.’  So that was where he was heading.

‘What will you do about school?’

‘School will have to wait.’  Or school was over, it just was.

She sidled out of his way, but he took her hand.

‘Mum, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.’  He didn’t just mean about Sebastian, but about everything, all those TV-dinner years.  He’d hurt her, he could feel it in her hot bony knuckles.  In breaking it to her this way, he’d taken after his father.  She would never have been so cruel.

‘All the ways I’ve harmed you, Joel,’ she murmured.

‘No, Mum, no.’

His anger was ebbing fast, and he had to leave on the tide.  For a few seconds they stayed together, forehead to forehead, scruffy twins grown thin in their hardship, hands joined for the last time.  At the door, she shoved two hundred dollars in his pocket and a cheque for more.  The way she rammed the money at him told him just how defiant she felt.

He hitched to Bonang Street then stood dumbfounded in the wind of the closed-up town, the handle of his loaded guitar case biting into his palm.  Trying not to think too much, he let his steps lead him where they would.  To Sebastian’s street, of course.

Sharon didn’t mind being knocked up in the middle of the night when she saw who it was.

‘I think I can see what’s happened,’ she said, putting her arm around him and drawing him inside.  She smelled of sleep and comfort.  He shuffled behind her to the kitchen although she was the one in the large fluffy slippers.

When he summed it up for her, sitting at her kitchen table and wondering how he’d got there, it hit him like a bucket of ice.  Light-headed with shock, he clung to the hot cup in his hands to stop himself keeling.

‘The thing is you told them,’ she said.  ‘Don’t worry if it came out badly.  Being honest takes practice.  You get better at it as you go along.’  Then, after refilling his cup and wiping up the drips when he nearly dropped it, ‘Joel, love, what you need right now is mothering, but you know what?  I’m more like your mother-in-law so I have a conflict of interest.  What do you say we make a phone call?’

Cheri didn’t complain about the lateness of the hour either, although Joel apologised.  She told him never to do that again, apologise for asking for her help.  Yes, she’d meet the bus in the morning, and of course he could stay.  They’d work things out.

Another bucket of shock hit him the next morning when he said goodbye to Sharon.  She was staying, he was going.  Forever, it seemed.  On the bus, he thought about this, and the truth unravelled like the road behind him.  All this time, he’d imagined he was like Sharon and Dave, the ones who stayed, but he never was.  He’d only ever stayed because there was no alternative.  In that way, he was like Sebastian, and Sebastian had known that.  So … in Melbourne … would there be a second chance?  Was Cheri’s to be a pit-stop … on the way to that hostel?

He slept for a day and a half in Cheri’s spare room then woke to peace and quiet.

There was a note stuck to the fridge downstairs.  Joel, have some brekky.  Help yourself to whatever.  Make any phone calls you need.  (Hint, hint – your mother.)  Graham and Marc are coming for dinner.  I’ll grab the makings on my way home from work.  Love, Cheri.  PS: Graham’s an old friend, he helped me come out.  He’s looking forward to meeting you again.  PPS: If you’re curious about the violin in your room, it was your grandfather’s.  PPPS: Phone message for you on the machine.

Joel ran to the answering machine and thumped on the replay button.  It was Nga’s voice, not Sebastian’s, that greeted him, asking him to ring ASAP, and did he know how much fucking trouble she’d had tracking him down?

He picked up the phone to ring her straight back, but his finger hesitated.  The number of the hostel was there in his head.  Although he’d rung it only a handful of times, it had been looping in his brain, getting itself memorised, waiting to be rung again.  He would tell Sebastian he’d done it, gotten out at last.  He would ask, is it true what you said?  That you still love me?  But … Sebastian wouldn’t take him back.  Not if he knew Seb.  In so many words, the guy would say, don’t hang onto my life, go out and live yours.  Yes, that’s how it would be.  He could bypass that phone call.

‘Nga, is that you?’

‘Joel!  Monster Snog, can you believe it?  I could kill Dave, but we’re stuck with it now.  Seems everyone’s talking about us, dude.  We’ll just have to be the Monsters.  Claw agrees.’

‘Yeah, I reckon.  What do you mean, everyone’s talk –’

‘I got us another gig!  Friend of Tuan’s manages the music for this pub in Sydney.  On the Parramatta Road, wherever the hell that is.  I’ll have to look it up.  Anyway, a band he booked for a residency pulled out.  He’s heard we’re brilliant and wants to slot us in.  Give us a go!  A whole month!  Paid!’

‘You’re kidding.’

‘Only one thing.  We have to start Friday.  Please just say yes, Joel.’

‘Uh, okay … yes.’

[Well, folks, that’s it.  Thanks for coming along, and I hope you enjoyed yourselves.  You’ve been a great audience.  What?  Encore?  But I’ve played my whole set… I think.  Okay, okay.  I’ll check if there’s one more chapter in the works…]

Chapter 38

February 18, 2011

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell, B Dylan

Standing in the doorway of the bar at the Star of the East Hotel, Joel knew he was home.

It was the look of the place.  A dingy pub and so perfect.

On the stage, a drummer went through a sound check while a roadie aligned mikes.

‘Try again,’ the roadie told the drummer, dragging a mike closer.

Nga twirled her sticks and gave the kit a blast.  She nodded, impressed.  ‘We found the sweet spot.’

The roadie turned and looked relieved to see Joel and Claw.  ‘What took you so long?’ he called.  ‘Get up here.  You gotta get amped.’

Joel goggled from the roadie to the high black speakers at the side of the stage to the guitars on their stands, most of the equipment from Dave’s shop.

‘Dave, you even brought my guitar …’

‘You left it in the flat.  I clipped on a pickup.’

It was the smell of the place.  Beer and cigarettes.

It was the sound.  ‘We’re looking for a clean pitch with lots on the top-end,’ Dave said, twiddling Joel’s pickup.

Joel stroked the alien chord dangling from the soundbox.  He flexed his fingers and played half a verse of Johnny B Goode.  The sound was … wow.

‘Bewdy.’  Dave grinned and gave a thumbs-up to the mixing desk at the other end of the bar.

It was the whole feel of the place.

‘Up with everything?’ Claw asked, casting a suspicious eye as he tuned his own guitar.  ‘You look kinda spaced out.’

‘I’m waking up,’ Joel replied.  No other way to put it.

Nga came out from behind her drums and waved her sticks in Joel’s face.  ‘Wakey wakey,’ she sang.

He grinned back at her, and she said, ‘Yeah, he’s out of bed.  And he thinks it’s a beautiful morning too.’

The trickle of people pressing in from the street was becoming a river.  The bartenders had been resting on their elbows, watching the band set up.  Now they were pulling beers and working the cash register.  As the bar stools filled, the noise level rose.  Joel recognised many of the punters from the skate comp.  Quite a number looked like they should be drinking lemonade instead of beer, if the pub was to honour its licence.

Dave dashed about, fixing the equipment, making them coo and clap and click into their mikes.

‘Geez, I’m so excited,’ he said.  ‘Takes me right back to my days with the Oils.’

‘You played with Midnight Oil?’ Nga asked in surprise.

Joel waited until Dave had bustled off again to whisper, ‘He was the roadie.’

Claw beckoned Joel and Nga to the back of the stage and, with tremulous fingers, thrust a sheet of song names at Joel.  ‘What do you reckon with this set list?  Nga and I worked on it, but I dunno.’ Claw peered into the room.  ‘This gig is going to pack out.  There are two hundred people in here and more coming.’

Humming under his breath, Joel focused on the list.  ‘Not bad but tame.  Let’s do more of our own stuff.  Pen please.’

While Nga and Claw watched, chewing their lips, Joel scratched out a few songs and added others.

Here were Steph and Bylinda and Tom, coming up for a front row position.

‘The band needs drinks,’ Steph announced and waded back to the bar.

Here were Pinky and Marie and Neo with Francie in her carrycot.  They waved from a corner where other patrons had been glared off their stools by Neo.  And here was most of Year 12 and ex-Year 12, including Dazza smiling to the band with his middle finger extended so that everyone could see he was in with them.

It took Steph ages to squeeze back to the front, balancing a round of schooners.  She climbed on the stage and deposited a glass in front of each guitar and the drum kit.

At last, they were tuned up, and Dave was happy with the sound.  He gathered the band together in the tiny space behind Nga’s drum kit and said, ‘Any problems?’

‘Nup,’ Joel answered for everyone because Claw and Nga were white and sweaty and looked incapable of responding with reason.

‘Right.  I’ll give you an intro.  Then … you’re on.’

Without further ado, Dave strode to a mike, put his hand to his mouth, and rushed back.

‘What do you call yourselves?  You’ve never given me a bloody name!’            Claw’s eyes popped.  ‘Fucking hell!’

‘Yeah, I quite like that,’ Nga said.  ‘It’ll do, anyway.’

‘No,’ Joel said.  ‘Why didn’t we think about this before?  Fuck.’

‘Even better,’ Nga said.  ‘Short.  Catchy.  Has a ring to it.’

‘No, no no.’  Joel tapped his foot in time to the slow clap fanning out from where he knew Steph and Bylinda stood.  ‘It has to be meaningful.  The name of someone we know, something we’ve done.  Pinky, Francie, wombat …  Christ, I don’t know.  Not Marcus.’

‘Shed Shovellers?’ Claw asked.  ‘Mill Hackers?  Tree Smokers?’

Shovelling sheds gave Joel an idea.  ‘Tunstall’s Dog,’ he said.  ‘You know, because it howls all night.’

Claw shrugged and looked desperately into the room.

Nga said, ‘Why not?  Dave, tell them Tunstall’s Dog.’

Dave was already back at the mike.  A couple of female voices near the front of the stage yelled, ‘Rock and roll!’

‘What?’ Dave cupped his hand over his ear.  ‘I can’t hear –’

‘Tunstall’s Dog!’

‘Okay, okay.’  Dave turned to the mike.  His suddenly booming voice cowed the audience.  ‘Will you please put your hands together for … Monster Snog!

The crowd jumped and cheered, and Dave bounded from the stage.

***

The microphone lead coils down its stand, like a vine hugging a sapling.  Taped on the floor is a shining sheet of paper with a list of songs – the play list, the grand plan.  Silent guitars gleam in their cradles.  A clink of glass, laughter, scuffing feet.

Joel straps on his guitar, welcoming the warm wood into his hands, and looks over his mike into the throng.  His stomach wobbles but only for a second when he sees the rows go back to the front door, all turned this way.  Someone’s raved this band up, probably Pinky.  Whenever Joel catches someone’s eye, he smiles at them, friend or stranger.  He glances at his comrade Claw.  The coloured downlights throw phantoms across the stage.  A red microphone shadow hangs from Claw’s mouth like dripping blood.  Claw winks at Joel then bends to his glass of foaming beer to take a sip.  Joel does the same, vacuuming half the glass into his mouth in one go.  He imagines Nga behind them, rolling up her sleeves, stretching her brawny drummer’s arms.  He hears her shuffling in her seat, the squeak of her cymbal stand, the tap of her sticks as she brings them together.  One, two, three, four …

After twenty minutes and the first songs on the play list, Joel whispers to the others, ‘Do you think they got hold of some magic mountain mull out there?’  The applause has been raucous.

‘No, man,’ Claw says with a grin, ‘they just like us.’

Who do you love, baby?  Oh baby, who do you love?

In his element, Joel reaches down for the second schooner Steph has deposited beside his mike, but before he can touch it, another hand whisks the glass away and replaces it with a bottle of water.  What the …?  Joel looks up in surprise to see Dave raising the beer to his own lips.  Wise manager as well as faithful roadie.

You got me runnin’, you got me hidin’ …

It all fits, Joel thinks.  He rolls the guitar on his outthrust hip, leans into the mic for a chorus.  The veins pump in his sweat-drenched neck as he sings.  Yes, it all fits now.  That wrong-shape feeling is gone.  Cool is when you fit inside yourself.

I doan care if you play me rough

I doan care if you smoke that stuff

The people out there are pulsing and shaking as one, punching the air.  Joel revs them, brings them in closer.  He swivels his guitar to the side, neck down, and unhooks the mike from its stand.

‘Oh yeeeah!’ he sings, clasping the mike in both paws then thrusting it into the crowd.

‘Oh yeeeah!’ they scream back.

‘Wo yeeeah!’ he yells, bratty and wild.

‘Wo yeeeah!’ comes the answer to the out-held mike.

Claw joins in with low throaty yeeeahs.  Joel senses Nga’s sticks raised high above her head.  He shoves the mic back on, brings the neck of his guitar to his face, bends to a crouch, and jumps for a final note-crashing chord.

‘Um … thanks,’ he calls over the cheering.

Claw is staring into the room with an idiot grin.  You can almost see the cartoon stars in his eyes.

There’s a tap on Joel’s shoulder.  It’s Dave.  ‘You got to play another set or there’ll be a riot.’  Looks worried.

So do the bartenders.  One of them pushes off a patron who’s already managed to get his bum on the bar counter.  Nga raises her eyebrows at Joel.  Encore?  Well, of course.

‘We’re taking a short break,’ Joel tells the crowd.

If anyone hears him, they don’t let on.

At the back of the stage, while Dave stands at the mike making ‘down, dog’ gestures at the audience, Joel scribbles a new set list.

Claw grimaces at it.  ‘We’ve hardly rehearsed most of these.’  Joel and Nga lean close to hear him over the growing stamp in the room.

‘Rehearsing’s for cowards,’ Joel laughs.  They can ride the wave that mob is sending up.  He pinches Claw and Nga on their cheeks and says, ‘See?  Real.’

They smile, doubt broken.  Nga cuffs the back of Joel’s head as they tread over leads to get back to their places.

Joel starts by going all serious and asking for some quiet.  His and Claw’s guitars hang from their straps.  Nga’s sticks are in her lap.

This gig is in support of a new skate park, as was the comp out at the mill today, Joel explains.  But you all know that.  Or maybe you don’t.  There may be some people who haven’t heard the story.  Quite a story.  It began back in summer when a few of us decided to scope the mill for a skate.

The knowing ones in the crowd whoop, sensing it’s all going public and their names might even get mentioned.  Claw begins a low chilled boogie beat.  The hopeful mob is hushed.

It’s a talking blues based on an old Muddy Waters number.  In the first verse, Joel tells about skating the empty concrete.  No one around so they take out their boards – Joel and Claw twist their heads, eyes wary, looking for signs of security – and they find this radical skate bowl.  Sebastian, who can’t be here tonight – Joel sniffs loudly and wipes his eyes – rips up the bowl.  Joel’s fingers trick up and down his fret board.  So, afterwards, they sneak back to the car, and just as they get there these monsters crash out of the bush!  Drive, drive, if you wanna stay alive.

Nga builds a drum roll, and they play a rowdy chorus.

What’s the matter with the mill?

It’s not broke down.

I can’t get no grindin’

Tell me what’s the matter with the mill.

Two more verses tell of the chase with a mad woman at the wheel – Bylinda jumps up – and the breakdown and the capture by the likely lads.  A fourth verse tells of being trapped in the mill office and the sudden arrival of the big bad man.  When Joel isn’t playing his guitar, it hangs from his neck while his hands fly about his head.  He slobbers into his mike, crying as they get pushed around by Lenny, scowling blackly as Marcus appears.

What’s the matter with the mill?

It’s not broke down! The mob belts out the line with the band.

What’s the matter with the mill?

It’s not BROKE DOWN!

The front rows are moshing.  People are dancing on the bar.  The bartenders stand back and ignore them.  Nothing they can do about it now.

In the final verse, Joel describes how Sebastian rescues him from the bad man’s clutches.  And how they find this phone box, no fucking change, then a caravan out the back, which they go inside.  And there’s a bed …

Claw stares open-mouthed at Joel who has never played the verse quite like this before.  Usually, he stops after he and Sebastian run off into the trees.  At that point in the story, Nga even begins her drum roll for the next chorus, but holds her sticks up as Joel keeps talking.

‘And I think I’m going to leave it right there,’ he says as he turns around in the tiny space between the bed and the kitchen and sees that the door is locked, but his wicked smile leaves no one in any doubt about what goes on inside that caravan.  And in the final chorus, while the mob bellows the responses, Joel merely shrugs at Claw and Nga, who shake their heads and grin at him.

The third set is a mellow affair.  All the band’s energy is donated by the crowd, it holds them aloft.  They play love songs.  Joel’s harp keens to Claw’s song for Steph.  When Joel plays his song for Sebastian, it’s the first time anyone else in this room has heard it.  His voice is scratchy, Tom Waits grimy, and the song is in a minor key.  God, it’s so sad, but he won’t cry even though he can hear it sounds like he’s sobbing.  Done with that for now, and a minor key is better than tears for expressing that tenderness that slices your heart.

As the song ends, there’s cheering and whistling and cries of ‘More!  Mooore!’

Huh?  Oh, yeah, you’re all here.  But that song is for someone who’s not here, who might hear the music drifting down the long roads and know that it’s all turning out sweet in the end.

They also do requests.  It’s that stage of the night.  Anything they vaguely know is fair game.  Up the back, someone drones over and over, ‘Like a Rolling Stone!  Do Like a Rolling Stone!’

Nga rolls her eyes.  They’ve played a bit of Dylan, but that one is just too hackneyed.

‘Blind Willie McTell?’ Joel asks Claw and Nga.  They nod.

‘I want to dedicate this song to my friend Sebastian,’ Joel rasps into his mike, ‘because he likes it and … because of the night I first played it to him.’

‘In the caravan,’ a voice calls.  Could be Dazza.

‘Nah.  Way earlier,’ Joel says, casual and side-on to the mike as he tunes up.

In their last encores, they go back to those old blues guys who taught them, and it’s like returning to the beginning of everything.  They don’t always remember the words.  Sometimes they get to dead ends and have to drop the song and start a new one, but the crowd doesn’t mind.  Joel is right there with Nga, her small hammy arms tapping over her drums, and Claw, bent over his guitar, wet hair falling in his face like an Elvis forelock, but they are transported.  It’s 1952, and they’re in a smoky bar on Chicago’s south side, and it’s early in the morning and still no one wants to go home.

So it is that Joel looks up surprised to see a bit of commotion at the door.  There’s some kerfuffle up there, someone raising their voice.  Doesn’t sound happy.  The door opens and closes, and now the fuss comes into the room.  It ploughs to the front of the stage as people hear the testy voice moving towards them and squeeze away from it.  Claw’s playing falters, but Joel doesn’t stop even though he can now see who’s causing the ruckus.  The song’s coming to an end anyway.  Fuck it, why should they close down before they’re ready?

But Claw and Nga can’t go on because the fuss looks like it might get aggro.  There’s an old guy with a red face elbowing people, coming closer.  Much as you’d like, you can’t ignore the codger.  So Joel brings it to a finale, his own guitar playing the last notes to travel through the amps.

There’s a woman behind the red-faced guy, glancing left and right.  You can see the whites of her eyes.  Poor thing, she’d be hating this ranting.  In front of people she knows and everything.  She would have tried to stop it, to recall the man to his dignity.

‘Good night, everyone,’ Joel calls.  ‘You’re the best, but you know that.’

The other members of the band echo his thanks and goodbyes.

‘Don’t worry about packing up,’ Claw tells Joel, his face sympathetic.  Claw has guessed who that guy is, the one who’s beginning to shout.

Joel unplugs his guitar and climbs off the stage.  The crowd parts as if for Moses, and he weaves his way back to the door behind his mother in the wake of his father’s storm.

 

 

Chapter 37

January 24, 2011

I did a frontside nosegrind pop-out for the revolution.

Slogan on commemorative skate comp sticker.

As the bus pulled in, Joel saw that spring had arrived.  Sheep clouds straggled across a blue sky towards billabong clouds.  Glowing green shoots peeped from plastic sleeves planted by the environment group to regenerate the roadside.  Chooks blustered in yards, old dogs yawned, and barefoot children pedalled their trikes along the footpath.

Steph and Bylinda were at the bus stop, like a pair of ye olde settlers in their big jeans and wide-brimmed hats, except for the wraparound sunnies and dreadlocks.  They jumped up and down and waved at Joel through the glass until he had no choice but to gather some of the day’s warmth into his heart.

He even managed to make it sound like a joke.  ‘I’ve been dumped,’ he said as they hugged him.  ‘As the dumpee, I couldn’t make the dumper come home with me.’

They didn’t ask him to explain, kind friends that they were.  All Steph said was, ‘You look tired.’

‘We have to hitch to the mill.  Jase’s car’s tied up,’ Bylinda told him.     Joel tagged along, too strung out to think.

A cavalcade of vehicles passed as they walked along the verge.  They flagged down a panel van with Queensland plates and mattresses in the back littered with skateboards, take away containers, and empty bottles.

‘Yep, we’re all going the same way,’ one of the Queenslanders assured them, kicking aside junk to make room.  ‘We planned a whole east coast skating tour when we heard about this jam.  Everyone’s raving about it.  Wonder if the fuzz will kick us out.  Never been arrested before.’  He cackled and rubbed his hands together.

Steph gave Joel and Byl a warning look.  Before the lift, the girls had filled Joel in.  Marc had caved in about using the mill for the comp.  The police had all the evidence they needed now and had been asked to stay away for the day.  Marc even offered to turn the event into a shire carnival and launch it for them as mayor.  Claw was utterly disgusted with this suggestion.  Half the encouragement for anyone to attend was the possibility of being caught in a police riot, didn’t Marc realise?  How could you expect people to turn up if there was no danger?

It was a weird feeling to be held up in hippy traffic on Marcus’s logging road.  When they arrived at the concrete centre of the mill, having crawled along the one-lane track behind Combis and minibuses, they saw Pinky directing cars to a makeshift parking area next to a saw shed.  It was a tight squeeze among vehicles of all sorts with plenty of out-of-state plates.

Out on the concourse, the concrete gleamed in the sun as if it had been washed.

‘It has,’ Steph murmured.  ‘You should see the bowl.  Squeaky.  All thanks to the coppers.’

They were in time for kick-off.

The central space had been roped off and arranged with the products of Pinky’s imagination and hard work to produce an awesome street course.  If Joel’s parents had been there, they would have seen much that was familiar to them.  People weaved on their boards up the towering vertical ramp Pinky had constructed from papa bear’s spare timber.  Most skaters were bailing before they could rock and roll over the top edge.

A long line passed by the registration booth, a card table staffed by Marie and a clearly rehabilitated Carlos.  Joel recognised the umbrella shading the table from long-ago beach holidays.  Further on, Tom handled a sausage sizzle on papa bear’s forfeited barbeque.  A beat drifted from speakers around a music system that Joel knew from Dave’s shop.  There was Dave himself, playing DJ.  Even a first aid tent had been erected.  Hundreds of people mingled and strolled in a merging of skate cultures.  Punks looked through rappers who ignored surfies who ambled among homies, most armed with skateboards, many with cameras.  Joel heard a smattering of accents and even some strange languages.  Here and there, a green herbal scent smacked his nostrils, and he made a mental note to ask Steph and Claw how they’d gone in their quest to score some magic mountain mull for the occasion.

The whole scene was blanketed in an amplified voice reverberating from a dais near Sebastian’s skate bowl.  King Claw, in charge and calling the comp.  Joel couldn’t help smiling when he saw the punk in his usual Greek-widow black, jawing into a microphone yet somehow sparkling.  He’d conjured a festival, and you couldn’t begrudge him.

‘Now if y’all please move behind the rope there, we can start our pro demo.  Grab yourselves one of them tasty bangers burning up on the barbie, twist open a coldie, and kick back to some psycho moves from the world’s uber skate dawgs.  They’ve ventured from all corners of the skating globe just to show y’all how sucker-punched crazy they are, so give ‘em a hand!’

Obedient but random clapping followed as people pushed back to the sides.

‘First cab off the get-go is Fabrizio De Castella from Portland, Oregon, last year’s World Cup title holder.  Take it away, Fabrizio!’

Joel watched from the barbeque where he was helping Tom.

In the middle of the concrete was a picnic table surrounded by chairs that Joel’s mother had once thought would look nice outside her kitchen window.  A bunch of people cruised out of the crowd and made themselves comfortable at the table.  Levered tops off bottles.  Began to gasbag amongst themselves as if it was a private party.  Then Fabrizio was riding high above their heads having launched a massive ollie on steel-spring legs right over the table.  The mock revellers gasped and got to their feet, cheering with everyone else as the skater thudded into a long run-off.

As Claw’s champions tore up the course, other bone-crunchers were tried.  One popular trick involved skating off the roof of the mill office over a dark blue rally car positioned below.  Another one involved grinding along the edge of a logging truck’s long tray, flipping over a gap and onto another truck.  Another number was a grind down the handrail of mama bear’s never-made walkway, positioned five metres off the ground.  The first aid tent was doing a brisk trade.

‘And how’s about a round of applause for that amazing, uh, trick along Mrs Cassady’s garden bench, folks,’ Claw’s voice bounced around the space.  ‘What?  It’s a … can you say that again?  I’ve been informed that was a half-Cab noseslide nollie heelflip radial out.  So, please, a big hand for the insane people who make up these names!’

Tom was craning towards the skaters lining up to take part in the street contest.

‘Gimme the tongs,’ Joel said, holding out his hand.

Tom gave them over and rushed away with his board.

The skaters’ runs were judged by crowd reaction, and Joel was pleased to see Tom go through to the finals, as well as another local notable, Stephanie Major.  He was also pleased to see that Pinky had put papa bear’s concrete water drain to good use as a twisting half-pipe, angle-ground to perfection.  In fact, it wasn’t difficult to be pleased with everything as long as you focused on flipping sausages instead of looking for the ghost of a blonde head in the crowd.

Nga and her brother Tuan came up and ordered sausages.

‘Gidday.  Didn’t expect to see you guys,’ Joel said, dishing out tomato sauce.

‘You’re joking.’ Tuan looked puzzled.  ‘What about tonight?’

‘Ah yes, we might catch up later,’ Nga said, grabbing the sausages.  ‘See ya, Joel.’  She dragged Tuan back through the queue, leaving Joel to peer after them.

Tom returned, straining with pride.  ‘Can’t believe it.  I won Local Legend,’ he said, interrupting Bylinda’s brother Jase, who was explaining to the sausage queue how it was his car played such a big part in the whole shebang from the outset.  Tom cradled the guitar he’d won, a donation from Dave’s Music Shop, and gave Joel a glimpse through the soundhole at an extra prize taped inside, a little plastic package.

‘Not magic mountain mull.  Marc wouldn’t come through with that.  Some hydro Claw managed to snaffle instead.  Nearly as good, so he reckons.  Hey, give us back the tongs and go for a skate.’

‘Nah, I’ll just watch,’ Joel mumbled, unable to imagine himself on a skateboard ever again, but Tom shoved him away.

He found himself at the bowl, drawn there by memory’s siren.  There must have been three hundred people crammed around the lip, gaping at the skaters inside doing wall rides and invert-reverts.

A kid next to Joel said, ‘Man, why’d they build a skate bowl out here, anyway?’

A contestant with pale stringy hair sprang up the side of the bowl and over the edge, so close to Joel that he could hear the guy’s grunt of exertion.  Nothing Joel could do but stagger off, eyes stinging, guts carved out by a dull knife.

‘Come on, soldier.  Let’s get outta here,’ Steph said, taking his elbow some time later as he shouldered blindly through the throng.  He’d lost track of time.  The sun was fiery and low in the sky.

‘Thanks,’ Joel said from the bottom of his broken heart.  ‘I should get home.  I’ve missed study day.’  Although that was an excuse because he just wanted to be alone.  There were worse things than missing study day.

‘Yeah, of course.  Um, let’s talk about that in the car,’ Steph said.

The skaters who’d participated in the contest were posing outside the mill office for a group photo by Pinky.

‘Meet yas there,’ Pinky called and waved.  Joel could only yell bye over his shoulder because Steph’s hand was in his back.

‘See you at the star,’ Tom shouted, flicking a dishcloth over the barbeque.  In a hurry to get in Pinky’s photo, no doubt.

‘What star?’ Joel asked Steph.  They’d already left Tom behind.

‘Star of the East,’ someone said as they passed, mistaking them for non-locals.  ‘Can’t miss it.  Big mother of a pub in town.’

The gig was folding.  Already, the sound system had been dismantled and taken away, neither Claw nor Dave in sight.  In the car park, Steph kept her grip on Joel’s elbow.  She whooped when Bylinda zoomed up behind the wheel of Jase’s car.

‘In you get,’ Steph said, pushing Joel’s head into the back seat.

Claw ran up and jumped in beside Bylinda.  ‘Pump on the gas,’ he puffed.  ‘We ain’t got much time.’

‘Can someone please tell me –’ Joel began.

‘That went off with a bang,’ Steph said.  ‘Lots of people, perfect weather.’

‘Oh, totally, totally,’ Claw chimed in.  ‘What do you think, Bylinda?’

‘Yeah, gnarly.  Hard-core.  Went without a hitch.  Prizes, people, sausages, tricks, um …’

‘Yes, but right now –’ Joel attempted.

‘And my calling wasn’t too bad, was it?’ Claw said.  ‘Fuck, I hope I haven’t made myself hoarse.’  He pulled a water bottle off the floor, took a sip, gargled.  The gargling swelled as Joel opened his mouth to say something further.

They were almost the first car back on the track.  Bylinda bowled along as if this was the bad old days and they were being chased by Marcus’s boys.  Everyone gabbed on and wouldn’t let Joel get a word in.  Okay, he’d been out of action for a few days and they’d been in the thick of it, but even so.

Bylinda skidded to a halt.

‘Do we have to relive the whole nightmare?’ Joel said, feeling his whiplashed neck.

Bylinda pointed to a low brown hump on the dirt in front of them.  ‘Did I hit it?’ she cried.

They got out to look.  The hump moved, stood up on four stumpy legs, then ambled across the road into the trees.  A wombat.

Joel had a sudden urge to follow, to make sure it was all right.  He heard the others tramping behind him as he slipped around logs.  The wombat, not welcoming its new friends, made itself scarce amongst the undergrowth, but up ahead Joel glimpsed a brightness.

He came out on a high ridge, the ground heeling over a granite scrag down a long cliff.  In the distance, over an expanse of sky, endless mountains undulated, every slope shaggy with forest, green to purple to pearly grey on the horizon.  He sat on a rock that was still warm from the afternoon sun and looked out over the quiet brooding wilderness.

Steph’s hand brushed his shoulder.  ‘I can’t hate anybody, not even Dad, if I look at this for long enough,’ she breathed.

Joel’s thought was similar.  If you could always see this far, your sadness might dwindle.  In such a vast landscape, your tiny pain might shrink to a point and wink out.  Space, like time, was a good doctor.

‘Will you take a bloody look?’ she said in a different voice.

She pointed to a slope in the middle distance where a huge mud patch fell away from a tan strip of road.  Lines of blackened trunks lay like barricades over churned and pitted ground.  Clay bled into the forest below for hundreds of metres.  Clearfell.

‘That’s the real crime, right there,’ Steph said.  ‘You know what?  All this time, we’ve focused on the wrong problem.  I’m glad I saw this.  It reminds me what I need to do with all the stuff going round and round in my head.’  Her chin jutted at the same angle as the rock shards sheeting over the cliff below.

Before Joel could answer, there was a toot from the road behind them and a shout, ‘Who owns this fuckin’ car blocking the track?  Finish your piss and keep driving, will ya!’

Joel stood up and faced the others.  ‘I’ve worked it out,’ he said.  ‘There’s an after-party at the Star.  Fair enough and thanks for trying to include me, but you don’t have to.  It’s a celebration and the end of something we’ve all been through and it would be grouse for everyone to be there, but … we’re not all here, are we?’  He heaved his shoulders.  Did he really have to explain?  ‘So you head on and have a good time.  I’ll be fine, you don’t have to worry about me.  I’ll get back in the car now as long as you promise to drop me at the highway.  I can walk home from there.’

Claw, who had been fidgeting and looking shitty, drooped his head.  At once, however, he straightened up and strode over to hold a quivering finger in Joel’s face.

‘Listen, buster,’ the punk growled.  ‘I don’t give a damn what kind of mood you think you’re in, you’re coming to that pub with us.’

‘Get stuffed.  I want to go home and mope.’

Claw swore under his breath then said, ‘No.  Here’s the deal.  You know that five max rule you have?’

‘About not playing in front of a crowd?’

‘Yeah, that stupid crap fu … thing.’  Claw so furious he could hardly get the words out.  ‘It’s total bullshit and … and I’m not putting up with it any longer!’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

Steph spoke quickly.  ‘Joel, you weren’t here.  And it was a spur of the moment opportunity.  And I know we made the decision without you, but it will be cool – really cool – I promise.’

Joel gave a little laugh.  ‘You mean …?  That’s why Nga’s here, isn’t it?  And why it’s at the Star.  Because of the stage.’

Steph and Bylinda nodded, guilty.  Claw glared beneath his black eyebrows.  Joel laughed again.

There was another rule, well, more of a saying.  It was that you couldn’t be a true bluesman until you’d been down to the pits, until you’d checked in and stayed at Heartbreak Hotel.  The blues were not for kids.  Anyone who thought they could play those low-down mournful chords without real pain inside was trying it on.  And you imagined life was a gradual uphill journey, but it wasn’t.  You grew up in steps.  There was no smooth unbroken path.  Over night, in fact, you could become a bluesman.

Another blare from the road, followed by a cacophony of barnyard tooting.

‘You don’t come back in ten seconds, we’re tossing this car in the trees!’

‘What’s the hold-up there?’

‘Some arsehole’s junked their car in the middle of the road!’

‘Come on,’ Joel said, clapping Claw on the shoulder.  ‘I’m with ya.’

Claw stood there, his whole body sagging in confusion, but Joel was already leaping towards the track.

‘What are you waiting for?’ he called.  ‘We got a show to play!’

 

 

Chapter 36

January 19, 2011

I’m an easy rider, babe,

Not your easy ride.

Untitled # 79, S Ginsberg

That final week, the week before the skate comp, Joel coped.

Coping is a complex food.  When you first taste it, you’re simply comforted by its porridge feel, but when you’ve been eating it for a long time, the bitter after-taste begins to pall.  Joel could sort of discern the ingredients – fear, denial, resentment, love, self-pity, sadness, habit – and he was beginning to wonder what they might taste like on their own, raw.

The day after the public meeting, he woke to the news that Mr Marcus Major (senior) now had no chance whatsoever of receiving a knighthood.

‘Gracious, they’ve arrested him.  I suppose it’s a mistake,’ mama bear said, hanging up from a Rotary friend who was getting in first before the local and indeed the national papers passed it on.

Papa bear grabbed for the paper, tore through to page 5, and read with shaking hands, leaving his tea to grow cold and his muesli to mush.

Joel wondered when to ring Sebastian.  Not now because now was a good time to get out of the house as quickly as possible.  With Marcus in the can, papa bear would be in the foulest of moods so best not to stick around.

At school, wherever Joel went, there were excited rumblings about how the cops had stormed the mill and the Major mansion where Marcus had holed up.  The media had released details of an operation codenamed Skunkhour – ‘Our 3M was better,’ Tom said – and related that Marcus Major, the well-known timber magnate, had been arrested on charges of cultivating and trafficking cannabis.  A picture was aired of a hand held up inside the back window of a white car.  When interviewed, Inspector Fiona O’Halloran of the Australian Federal Police refused to say more than that the operation had been long-running and so far successful.

In the school yard, the rumours were juicier.  The cops had discovered acres of killer dope in the mountains so vast, it was said, that Columbia could no longer hold the world title for cannabis production.  Joel couldn’t believe there was any substance in the one about Marcus being led off in hand-cuffs with his suit coat pulled over his head.

‘I’ll always remember the way he lost it in the public meeting,’ Tom said, talking about the man in the past tense.  ‘The way he turned into a werewolf at the end.’

‘Marc said none of us will have to go to court.  I hope he sticks to that,’ Joel muttered, looking over his shoulder to make sure Steph wasn’t in earshot.

No one dared to bring up the departed father in front of Steph.  She was acting weird, all calm and sweet and sighing a lot.  If anyone tentatively asked how she was taking things, she’d say, ‘We’ve all got our faults.’

Bad Blood was also acting funny.  At recess, he stomped around handing out detentions for offences like ‘talking outside the library’ and ‘not wearing socks’.  He was heard to yell at his secretary that if one more member of that media scum rang, she was to blow the hockey whistle down the phone.  Perhaps his mood had to do with one of the riper rumours doing the rounds, that Mrs Blood had also been taken down to Melbourne to assist the police with their enquiries.

Yes, it was as if someone had died.

There was no mention of Sebastian’s role in the meeting.  No one asked why he wasn’t at school.  Joel was glad because he couldn’t talk about it yet.  He was bleeding inside.  Everywhere he looked, there was nothing but absence.  The fig tree was a tree of hard knowledge, the school fence was a corral, and the empty seat in the front row of English was a wound.

***

‘No, it’s not your fault,’ Sebastian said that night.  He’d already moved to the hostel and was on the semi-public phone in the hallway outside his room.  No mobile phone on him.  Certainly hadn’t tried very hard to keep communication channels open.  ‘Joel, can you speak up a bit?  There’s a lot of people.  This place is grouse, by the way.’

‘Was it … was it that faggot comment of Marcus’s?  Because I don’t blame you, it freaked me too, but no one’s said anything –’

‘I don’t care if they do.  Hang on … Sorry?  Joel, I have to go, someone wants to use the phone.’

‘When are you coming back?  I want you to come back.’

‘Why don’t you come for a visit?’

‘A visit?  Jesus!’

‘Well, if you don’t want to.  Joel, I really gotta hurry –’

‘Okay, wait … wait, let me think.  I could wag school and come tomorrow.’

‘No, I got classes starting.  Make it the weekend.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be free by then.’

‘Oh fuck.  Okay, I’ll be down Friday.’

‘Saturday.’

‘Saturday then!  Can I ring you again on this number?’

‘You can try.’

***

Underneath the fig tree, the conversation was stilted, when Joel raised his head to notice.  They were talking about essays, for God’s sake.  This thing about not mentioning Marcus in front of Steph was getting ridiculous.

‘You know what this place reminds me of?’ Joel broke in, scowling at the daisies pushing out of the grass.  In the street, pink blossom waved on the branches of plum trees.

The others exchanged wary looks.

‘A dull holiday town at the end of summer when your friends have left and the weather’s packed in.’

There was a pause then Steph said, ‘Not all your friends have left.’

Joel rolled his sandwich back and forth on his knee, turning it into a gluey white sausage.  Somewhere in back of him, a wave came pounding, threatening to tumble from his eyes.

‘I saw him before he left on Monday night.  Talk about upset,’ Bylinda said, her voice cautious.

‘What?’  Joel looked at her, confused.  Had she been accosted by Marcus too?  But Bylinda’s face was sad.

Steph reached out a hand, as grave as Bylinda.  ‘Joel, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.  But we’re here, okay?  And maybe … well, maybe Sebastian is better off in Melbourne.  He was kind of dying here.  And I don’t believe it’s the end of you two.’

‘I saw him at the bus stop with his mum,’ Bylinda said.  ‘And, well, like I say, he was upset.  The public meeting was the last straw.’

‘It was that faggot comment,’ Joel said.

Tom faced the distant class rooms with a square face.  In his pocket, a fist.  ‘Anyone makes an issue of it, let me know,’ he said.  ‘I’ve already had a word with a few people.’

Joel didn’t answer but recalled seeing Tom outside the school gate that morning, trussing the collar of some kid in that same fist.  One of those kids Sebastian had yelled at in the corridor.  Joel had meant to ask Tom what the barney was about, but in his woefulness had forgotten.

‘So when are you heading down to see him?’ Bylinda smiled.

‘Weekend,’ Joel said.  ‘He’s, uh, settling in before then.’

Steph clapped her hands to her head.  ‘It’s the skate comp this Sunday!’ she cried.  ‘Sebastian has to come back for it, he’s our star chance.  You hafta get him back here, Joel.  And don’t you miss it either, or Claw will kill you.  Pinky and the others have been up for nights building ramps and stuff, and Claw’s up and down to the airport every day collecting people.  Marc’s turned a blind eye.  Hasn’t said a thing to me about all the stuff I’ve got stored at our place, even though he’s sharing a bedroom with it now.  It’s all happening.  It’s on.’

‘Hey, yeah.’  Joel clutched at this.  ‘That’ll get him back.  Expect us both on the Sunday morning bus.  There’s no way Sebastian will miss the skate comp.’

Mooching to class with Tom after the bell, Joel said in a low voice, ‘Man, I really appreciate you sticking up for us, but you don’t have to, like, protect me anymore, okay?’

Tom raised his eyebrows.

‘I mean it.  I wanna start handling shit.  And I don’t want to see you in brawls.’

Tom stopped and scratched his bristly chin.  ‘Something you should know, mate,’ he said.  ‘I don’t like people slagging on my friends.  When they do that, they slag on me too.  So it’s not just for your sake, all right?  Don’t try to protect me either.’

‘You know you’re a stubborn dude?’ Joel said as they walked on.  ‘Cool, but really fucking stubborn.’

***

The hostel was a giant old terrace house in the heart of the city, not far, Joel guessed, from that hotel where they’d stayed for Sebastian’s birthday.  Bikes crowded the rusty wrought iron fence outside and the threadbare hallway inside.  A spicy curry smell came from somewhere further in.  In the front room, a chick with spiky blue hair sat on reception and told Joel to wait while someone went off to find Sebastian.  Spiky-blue got on the phone and put her bare feet on the wall, which was papered in posters.  One was an ad for some kind of political meeting, superimposed over a silhouette of Che Guevara.  Another announced the launch of a group calling itself Queypi (Queer Youth For Peace In Iraq) with a rainbow-coloured dove.  There were endless gig posters – bands, bands, bands.  On the shelf beside Spiky-blue, next to the telephone books, were other books with titles like The Anarchist Cookbook and Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity.  Spiky-blue’s green-toenailed feet tapped the wall in time to a low reggae beat bopping from the CD player in the corner beside a dusty rubber plant.

So Sebastian’s new home was totally awesome.  So it was totally temporary.  Tomorrow, he would come home.  It would be chill.  Everything would be sweet and cool.

Ten minutes later, Joel was still telling himself to hang loose.  Sebastian hadn’t appeared.  It seemed he was out.  Although Joel had specifically said he was getting in on the four o’clock bus and had taken a big risk in coming to Melbourne.  He’d told his mother he was going to Sebastian’s for the night, but what she didn’t know was that Sebastian had left town.  You’d think, under the circumstances, that someone could be there to meet you, but no matter.

There at last was Sebastian’s voice at the front door, chatting and laughing over other laughter, but the person who came in and said, ‘Shit, sorry I’m late,’ looked like a stranger.  He’d got himself a buzz cut and an earring.  He looked extremely cool but also about twelve.  His face was sunny in its halo of blonde fuzz, but Joel saw brackets of tension around his mouth.

A guy and a girl came in behind Sebastian, joking to each other.

‘You want to go to the market, Sebastian?’ the guy said.  Stopped short when he saw Joel.  ‘Uh, later? … Oh, I guess not.’  Gave Joel a worried look.

‘Yeah, let’s do that,’ Sebastian said.  ‘Give us ten minutes.’

‘Great!’  The guy was obviously surprised and pleased.  ‘I’ll come to your room then.’  The girl pulled him out the door, whispering something with a sideways glance at Joel.

‘Who are they?’ Joel asked as he climbed the stairs after Sebastian.  Didn’t like the guy already.  The guy had helped Sebastian be late and knew where his room was.

‘People who live here, and we’re at the same school.  Really friendly.’

Joel was longing to run his fingers through that buzz cut.  He didn’t even get a peck on the cheek.

‘I gotta change,’ Sebastian said, squirming out of Joel’s arms to get to the wardrobe.

His room was small and colourful.  Sharon had brought down his doona, rug, and posters.  Even the wooden letters from his bedroom door at home that told you he was a poet were strung up above the narrow bed.  A picture window looked out onto red rooftops.

‘School is going to be ace,’ he said, pulling on a tee shirt Joel had never seen before.  ‘Laid-back, but the teachers are actually helpful, you know?  Treat you like an adult, not some dumb criminal kid.’

Joel blinked down at Sebastian’s desk.  Lots of library books with yellow notes sticking out of them, an open notebook, highlighter pens.  Against the wall, Sebastian’s skateboard.

‘That’s nice,’ Joel croaked, shifting the cement in his chest to speak.

Sebastian spoke into the wardrobe mirror where he was fiddling with his haircut.  ‘Yeah, I’m actually enjoying class for a change.’

The cement set a little harder.

A musical rap on the door, and the guy from downstairs stuck his head around.  ‘Ready?’ he said, grinning at Sebastian.  As if Joel wasn’t there.

‘You bet.’  Sebastian smiled back.

Joel drew the edges of his mouth up and fixed them there as they trooped back down the stairs.  No welcoming kiss, no word of explanation, no ‘thanks for coming and how was the trip,’ but a ‘you bet.’  Well, well.

At the market, the atmosphere became steadily glummer in contrast to the surroundings.  Joel shook his head at stall holders who offered him fruit and pretended not to listen to Sebastian and the other poser whose name turned out to be Axel, for fuck’s sake.  Axel had a buzz cut, three earrings, designer jeans, tastefully ripped, and a Ramones tee shirt.  Probably knew the band through the tee shirt, not the other way around.  Prat.

They were enthusing about their new school.  Sebastian tried to include Joel in the conversation.  ‘School at home’s much more oppressive, don’t you reckon, Joel?’

‘Yeah, no wimps allowed.  You have to be tough to stay there.’  Joel frowned at an elderly woman holding out a bunch of grapes to him.

Sebastian lapsed into silence.  Over coffee at an outdoor café beside the market, it was finally only Axel keeping up the chinwag.

‘Think I’ll head back,’ he said at length, gazing at Sebastian.  The statement was more of a question.  All through coffee, Axel’s leg had tapped nervously so the glasses on the table shook.

‘Okay, check ya,’ Sebastian said, not looking up.

Joel was relieved, unlike Axel, who looked mighty disappointed.

‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?  Do you want to catch that film we were talking about?’  Axel turned back.  It was clear there were only two tickets, not three, on offer.

‘Nah.  Maybe tomorrow,’ Sebastian said into his drained glass.

Bye bye, dud, Joel thought at Axel’s slumped shoulders, retreating through the tables.

Sebastian slammed his glass down.  ‘Let’s go.’

He got up and stalked off in the opposite direction to Axel.  Joel skipped to keep up.

‘Seb, can we go back to your room now?  We have to talk.  The skate comp’s going to be huge.  Hundreds of skaters from all over.  Claw’s been picking them up.  You are coming back for it, aren’t you?’

Sebastian ran a red light.  Joel was nearly skittled by a motor bike as he followed.

‘Steph’s counting on you being there.  She’s so depressed, you wouldn’t believe.  The only thing getting her through is the skate comp.  If you’re not on your deck, I don’t know what she’ll do.’

Sebastian muttered under his breath.

‘What was that?  Oh, and Tom and Byl, too.  They said, if you don’t come, the whole thing’s up shit creek …’

Sebastian was already crossing another road.

‘And Sharon!  I can’t wait to see the look on her face when we turn up at your place.’

After a while, Joel just stumbled along.  They reached the university, and Sebastian turned into the grounds without a word.  He slowed down as they passed through a quadrangle between grey slabs of buildings.

‘You do realise that try-hard only wants to get into your pants?’ Joel grumbled.

‘Who?’

‘That Axel.’

Sebastian stopped and rested his knuckles on his hips.  Typical breathtaking pose.  God, that haircut was cute.

‘You’re just jealous because he’s out and you’re not.’

Joel crossed his arms.  ‘I didn’t see him being out.  I saw him drooling on you.  Didn’t you tell him about me?’

‘I did, as a matter of fact.  And he’s a friend.  You are so paranoid.’  Storming off again.

As they passed a playing field where people in black socks swiped hockey sticks over the turf, Joel muttered, ‘I’m just happy to be myself.’

‘Not your real self,’ Sebastian bit back.

‘Am too.’

‘Then kiss me.’

‘What?’

‘Here and now.  Come on, Joel, kiss me.’

Joel looked towards the oval.  They were kind of hidden behind a fence so he leaned in.  At once, he felt himself melt against Sebastian’s lips.  Oh, it had been too long.  That hot caress of soft tongues.  Sebastian sighed, and Joel recognised that sigh.  It flooded him with solace.  Yes, he was still loved.

A wolf whistle floated over the oval, and Joel pulled away.  ‘Can we please go back to your room to continue this?’ he panted, noting with dismay that Sebastian was reverting to crossness.

Sebastian about-turned, and once more, Joel was skipping to keep up.

Do I really have to be an exhibitionist to get you back?  Why are you being so fucking hard on me?  What if I got a haircut too?  An earring?  Do you know it doesn’t make you look tough?  If you still love me, why, why, why don’t you come home?  On the way back to the hostel, Joel tried these questions on in his head and knew that none of them were worth asking.

In the bright little room, surrounded by the dear warm things of his childhood, Sebastian grew gentle.  ‘Joel, I can’t come back for the skate comp.  I’m sorry, babe, I’m not coming home.  Ever.  That part of my life is over.  It just is.’

‘But –’

‘I know you’re going to ask why I can’t wait till next year.’

Joel nodded.  It was true.

‘But I’m tired of life happening to me.  I want to happen to it.  I want to live happily ever now, not after.’

Joel tried once more.  Once more with feeling and some measure of goddamned honesty.  ‘You always encouraged me.  I haven’t done that for you enough.’  He was sitting on the bed with the pillow at his chest for comfort.  ‘We always talked about my future, but not enough about yours.  Christ, I don’t even know what course or job you want to do.  I’m sorry about that.  And I don’t want to hold you back.  That’s so important to me, Seb.  There’s no good in the world if you aren’t happy and free, but I still love you so I’m here, asking you to be patient with me …’  He felt his chin tremble.

Sebastian sat at the desk chair, rolling his skateboard under his feet.  His answer came as a surprise.  ‘You never held me back.  You gave me everything I’ve got.  Do you know what it would have been like without you?  For both of us?  Oh, Joel, you should hear Axel’s story.  He comes from a redneck town too, but he didn’t have you.  Or anyone like Steph or Byl or Tom either.  He has scars, Joel.  His parents sent him here to keep him alive.  We are so lucky.’

Joel didn’t know what to say.

‘And I do feel free.’  Sebastian smiled sadly.  ‘The problem of not being free is yours.’

***

All through the bad night, lying next to Sebastian who refused even to be hugged let alone to loosen his clothing, Joel tried again.

‘Why didn’t you keep at me to come to Melbourne with you?  You gave up on me,’ he said to the back of Sebastian’s cropped hair.

‘I did keep at you.  I never shut up about it.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me you were so close to leaving?’

‘I did.’

‘Do you have any idea how I felt coming down today?’

‘Yes, and do you have any idea how I felt coming down on the bus by myself last Monday?’

After a long interval in which either one of them might have fallen asleep, ‘I didn’t know you were so miserable.’

Sebastian’s voice came back at once.  ‘I’m not anymore.  You are.’

‘Is it too late for me to move down here with you?  What about next year?  Will you still be here?’  Joel kept it up, barking uselessly.

‘I don’t know where I’ll be.  Can we please try and get some sleep?’

They must have slept because seconds later, it seemed, Joel woke to the dawn.  He got up and put his shoes on.  Nothing to do but get back on the bus alone.  He saw now that returning with Sebastian had been the second-best option.  In the back of his mind, he had hoped to be talked into staying, to be finding a room next door in this funky hostel, to be ringing Steph and Claw to apologise for not returning for the skate comp, to be telling them, hey, that part of his life was over, it just was.

Sebastian sat up in bed and began to cry.  ‘This is horrible.  I don’t think I can handle it.  I love you so much.  No, no, don’t stay.  I’m so angry with you for not standing up to your dad, for choosing your fucking parents over me.  Go home, I’m happy here.  Just go, will you?  If you don’t leave right now, I’ll scream!’

***

From the back of the bus, Joel watched the city peter out.  Houses and streets descended into paddocks like an untidy pile of clothes, yesterday’s socks.  Somewhere near the centre was life in a warm bed.

He was still asking the worthless expired questions he’d put to Sebastian during the night.  Why hadn’t he known it would turn out like this?  He should have.  But how could he have guessed?  If he’d only thought.  Was there anything left to go back for?  Perhaps not, perhaps nothing.  Was he a fool for going back to nothing?  Yes, but what else could he possibly do?

 

Chapter 35

January 12, 2011

I will not yield

To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,

And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.

Macbeth, W Shakespeare

Joel was late.

‘Say what you said the last time we went to council.  That was cool,’ he had said last night when he rang to find out how the speech was coming along.  ‘If you want me to come over early for a practice run …’  He’d hardly seen Sebastian all week.

In the background, Sharon had been calling.

‘She says I have to look prepared.  If she means I’ve got to wear that whack sports blazer, she’s la-la,’ Sebastian said.  ‘Look, I gotta go and listen to her pointers.’

‘Okay, sure.’  If you don’t want to listen to mine

‘Joel, don’t be late tomorrow.’

‘As if.’

Well, he was.  It was because of that sports blazer comment.  Mama bear had told Joel he couldn’t go to the council ‘looking like that.’  He’d given her a look and shrugged his wind cheater on anyway then remembered what Sebastian might be wearing.  Stomped into his room to change into the mustard-coloured dress shirt.  Regretted it as soon as he was out the door.  Ignored her comment at his back, ‘Straight home afterwards.’  Missed the bus.

***

The town hall was packed, a crowd still pouring in.  Up and down Bonang Street, cars cruised for a park.  Bad Blood hurried past Joel and up the steps with a tight smile.  A knot of Year 9 skaters with their boards moseyed up.  The whole town had come out.  Joel peered around for a friend and figured they were all inside.  A little chill of loneliness settled on him.  The whole thing would be a thrill right now if there was anyone to share it with.

The arched doorway of the meeting room was a traffic jam, and when he tried to squeeze into the middle of the crush, he heard, ‘Excuse me, you there.  Excuse me.’

He knew, as you always do, that it was him they were calling.

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get through,’ he said to the door attendant, pointing at himself.  Surely, only someone officially connected with the meeting would wear such a shirt as his.

‘There’s no more room.  You’ll have to wait out here.  Can you wait, please?’

‘Yeah-no, I’m part of it.  They need me to go in.’

She looked his shirt over, obviously for some proof, a badge or a label.  He had nothing but his skateboard in his hands.

‘I’m sorry.  There are nearly five hundred people in there.  You can stay out here and listen if you like.’

‘Five hundred?’ someone said.  ‘Must have been that article in the paper about teenagers and drugs.  Gets people in, a saucy connection like that.’

‘No, it’s because people don’t want a skate park,’ another voice countered.  ‘Hear how much they’re asking?  Hundred thousand dollars, no joke.  Council should spend that on the footpaths.’

People behind Joel sauntered off, telling each other they’d have to come earlier next time, bumping into others still ascending the stairs, passing on the news.

‘Meeting’s full.’

‘We’ll read about it in the paper tomorrow.’

‘Oh well, can but try.’

Joel was watching the attendant, waiting for her to turn to the newcomers so he could squidge in.  He heard Marcus before he saw him.

‘Locked out?  I don’t believe it,’ the well-bred voice laughed.  ‘What about our democratic rights, eh?’

The attendant’s simper.  ‘Oh, Mr Major, I’m sorry.  If I knew you were coming, but as you can see …’

Joel winched himself between the shoulders in front of him.  Like a cork under pressure, he was sucked forward until he was in the room and out of Marcus’s view.  His back tingled with fright and he kept moving, treading on toes and apologising.  His leg was poked.

‘You can’t stand here, mate.’

At a long table, the councillors whispered to each other or passed notes or leaned back to answer a question prodded at them from someone behind.

On and on, Joel swam through a babbling human current, trying to find a spot to rest, until he came to the back wall under the balcony.  From here, he could see over layers of people to the central table.

Sebastian was seated at one end, hair combed back, wearing a shiny grey blazer with shoulder pads that stuck out like baby wings.  He gazed around the room and up to the galleries on either side.

Joel guessed with a sudden pang who he was looking for.  He raised his arm to wave, but accidentally clocked the woman standing next to him.  By her glare, he recognised her as a shopper who had jumped out of the way of his board on Bonang Street recently.  Now as then, he said sorry, sorry, and patted her, which only intensified her dirty look.

Sebastian didn’t see him, but on the other side of the room someone else waved – Tom next to Bylinda, Steph, and Claw, also with standing-room only.  Tom made get-over-here gestures, but Joel could only shrug and roll his eyes at all the people.  Someone close to him farted, a beefy stench, and the woman he’d knocked turned to stare at him in outrage.  This, the biggest room in the whole town, was too small for the crowd.  Gilt, carved timber, and emblems embroidered into the carpet, but hot, airless, and stagnant as a toilet.

‘Um,’ Marc said into his microphone, causing the hubbub to tone down a fraction.  He was at the opposite end of the table to Sebastian, looking smooth in a black suit.  ‘I apologise to those of you standing.  If we’d known this many were coming, we would have booked the football oval.’

Marc smiled to signify he was joking.  A few titters followed.

‘And if you’re all here to support the skate park, we might have to build it on the football oval.’

Bigger smile for bigger joke, but there were disapproving grunts among the titters.  A voice from the back shouted, ‘Don’t you dare!’

Quickly, as if he thought the crowd might get out of hand, Marc introduced Sebastian as the chief of the skate park committee.  ‘And I might add, he’s already put a very persuasive argument to council.’  Smiling encouragement at Sebastian but casting a worried eye around the chamber.

A number of councillors nodded with condescension.

As soon as Marc handed the meeting to Sebastian, Joel saw a difficulty.  There was only one microphone, and it was down Marc’s end.  Sebastian stood to speak, but his voice was hard to hear over the murmur of the crowd.

‘… petition with nearly four hundred signatures … currently have to travel to Wangaratta or Melbourne to skate at good parks … not that much money when you think of what we spend on the roads …’  Sebastian read his notes, and his voice was small and vulnerable.

Down the table, Joel saw Councillor Tunstall, the guy who didn’t seem to know he had a watch-dog, put his hand to his ear.

‘Speak up,’ the old man growled.

All around Joel, people tipped their heads to their neighbours, made wry comments.

Sebastian faltered then spoke more quickly and a little louder, but the murmur around him rose too.  Joel was stricken.  Why couldn’t people bloody listen?  Sharon, next to Councillor Tunstall, obviously had the same concern, judging by her frown and the way her hand was pushing ‘up, up’ at Sebastian.

‘It’s a lot of money!’ a voice shouted, the same that had backchatted Marc.

This encouraged others.

‘You haven’t told us why we need a skate park,’ someone called.

‘What about the graffiti?’ another voice sang out from the other side of the room, above the growing din.

‘This is why we need it,’ Sebastian said.  He dropped his notes to the table and raised his arms, scanning the cynical rows.

Many people shut up at once.  Whether it was because of Sebastian’s suddenly intense look or because he was pointing the finger at bad behaviour, Joel couldn’t guess.  He heard someone nearby whisper, ‘What’s the kid on about now?’  There were a few questioning grunts then expectant silence.

‘This is why,’ Sebastian repeated.  ‘It’s for your sakes, to show that you care about us.’  His clear voice needled the hush, and a low thrum of pride started in Joel’s chest.  ‘To show that you care about the people who use those old tennis courts day after day, year after year.  That we’re not just nothing to you.  We get born here, we go to school here, we try to live here.  Skating is part of that.  But you ignore us, if you can.  And when you can’t, you complain.’  The sound of the last word came out like a bell, a ringing ‘ainnn’ at the end, like ‘painnn.’

The woman next to Joel shuffled.  The silence deepened.

‘You treat us like … like cigarette butts you throw out the car window,’ Sebastian said.  He flicked an imaginary butt into the crowd.  ‘As long as we burn out, you don’t want to know about us anymore.’

He stopped and looked around the room, as if waiting for a response, a shout, any word at all.  The silence was cowed, it knew there was no come-back.

‘So … getting back to the skate park.’  Sebastian blushed and picked up his notes, and for a moment looked apologetic for getting off track, but Joel was riveted and he knew everyone else was.  If he could just catch Sebastian’s eye, he’d let him know too.

Sebastian scrunched his notes in his hands as he went on.  ‘The skate park is for all of us.  It’s so we can have a town that people don’t want to leave as soon as they finish school.  It’s to show respect for the people who get born here.  It’s so we can like each other.’

Still no response, but Sebastian had warmed up, he was into his story.  ‘I’ll tell you something.’  He left his chair and walked over to Joel’s side of the room.  The front rows leaned away from the prospect of flagellation.  The back rows leaned forward to see and hear better.  ‘After the strike last year, this town was in a bad way, we all know that.  It wasn’t a great place to live anymore.  When the scabs left, the bad feeling stayed.  Then we had the forest protest.  Half the people thought it was just the other half being ratbags.  It’s still like no one can stroll down Bonang Street without getting a crook look from someone who was on the other side of the line.’

Sebastian walked around the table and appealed to the other half of the room now.  Eyes widened in the front row.

‘I’m not saying a skate park is the whole answer to that, of course not, but it’s got to do with it.  We need to spend time and money on fixing this place up, on making it a decent friendly town.  And a skate park is not just some bandaid.  It’s a permanent thing that a lot of us want.  If we had a great skate park, we wouldn’t just be known as a dying logging town, don’t you see that?  And maybe more people my age would stick around.  It could be the start of something, some … I don’t know … some recovery.  Don’t you want that?  Don’t you want us to stick around?  Do you want this to be a place where people like me actually want to live?  Or are you prepared to let it be nothing but Marcus Major’s mill town?’

Sebastian’s words seemed to echo through the room, so many ears to bounce on.  Joel fed the words around his head, savoured them, and saw their impact repeated on the faces of the audience.  It was as if Sebastian had broken a taboo.  Many mouths opened in surprise, some smiled.  People turned and gripped each other to natter.  Councillor Tunstall whispered something in Sharon’s ear that made her nod and grin.  The editor of the local paper, in a front row seat opposite Joel, wrote furiously in his notebook.

Now Joel looked for Marcus’s face in the crowd, sure he wouldn’t find it.  If he’d been Marcus, he would have snuck out at this stage of the meeting.  Would have gone home and packed for Brazil or Argentina and run off in shame, shown up by a hero in a bad-fitting sports blazer but a beautiful sight nonetheless.

But Joel wasn’t Marcus.

Was it Marcus’s unquenchable desire to have the last word that drove him on?  Or was it an attempt to head off any more criticism before the lynch mob turned on him?  Or was it something more rational – politics, a stratagem, a last-ditch chance to kill the skate comp and the threat that he thought lay behind it?  Joel, along with everyone else, posed these questions later, but as the drama stepped up he was simply overcome by a gut-churning mixture of terror and love.

A loud snort came from the far side of the room.  Joel followed the noise with his eyes, passing over the mayor’s anxious face.  There was a flurry as people twisted to let someone through to the front.

It was a no-nonsense Marcus who stepped out of the mass and towered behind his son.

‘Well done,’ the big man said, clapping slowly.  ‘You’ve neatly sidestepped the main question, which is, why should this town spend a small fortune on an entertainment complex for an unruly element?  Who’s going to pick up the vandalism bill?  Can you guarantee the complex won’t be trashed by graffiti within three months?’

A jeering voice that had shouted earlier came in as chorus, ‘Spend the money on cleaning up the streets!’

Marcus tilted the unseen heckler a smile, allowing the crowd to mutter agreement for a moment.  ‘And what of the money already raised for this skate park of yours?  The signers of that petition were also – I won’t say extorted – certainly encouraged to donate funds.  Where is that money?’

Sebastian stared, tight-lipped, down the length of the table.

Look at us, don’t look at him, Joel pleaded silently.

Some of the councillors frowned at Sebastian.

Now Marcus made an even riskier attack, in for the kill.  ‘You haven’t exactly proven yourselves trustworthy custodians of the public’s good will, have you?  You argue a skate park will keep you off the streets, stop the graffiti, the vandalism, the irritation and danger to pedestrians, the illegal activity.  I hardly think so.’

Behind him, Joel heard someone say, ‘Yeah, what happened to that money?’

‘Right at this moment, you’re planning another massive unlawful action to disrupt our mill, isn’t that so?’  Marcus spread his hands as if the mill belonged to the audience and he was merely a spokesperson.

Talk erupted again.  Everyone jostled like excited electrons.  Joel felt his skateboard jammed into his leg.

‘That’s that skating event,’ a person behind him commentated in a low voice.  ‘D’you see it on the net?  They’re going to raid the mill and skate there, for a lark.’

‘What a cheek,’ another answered.  ‘And then coming in here, all innocent.’

Sebastian was motionless.  Gathering his thoughts?  Stumped?  ‘I want to talk about the skate park,’ he said finally.  ‘I don’t want to get into that other stuff … illegal activity.’

Joel knew Sebastian was simply thinking on his feet, speaking his mind.  It wasn’t his way to make veiled threats, even though he’d ended on a warning note as if he could say more.  If Marcus had known Sebastian, he would have understood that.

Marcus’s spine appeared to fuse.  ‘You’re the ringleader, I think,’ he said.  He refrained from pointing, but all his vigilance was on his enemy.  ‘It’s your photo on the website, on the poster.  We’ve all seen it.’  The man gestured to the crowd again, another attempt to bring them in as co-accusers.   ‘You come here begging for money, and in the meantime you plan to storm the mill like a terrorist.  Deny it if you can, you … you …’

‘I don’t deny anything,’ Sebastian said in a quavery voice, but his back was as straight as Marcus’s.  ‘Do you deny you’re threatening me?  That you’ve threatened my friends?  That you –’

‘How do you expect us to believe a word you say?  That’s my point,’ Marcus flung back.

The man was getting swept away by himself.  The strength of his outpouring was clearly starting to confuse people.  Joel heard questions all around him.  Councillor Tunstall said, ‘Steady on, sir.’  Sharon scraped her chair back and stood up.  Marc tapped his microphone and piped, ‘Order, order.’

But Joel knew what was going on.  Marcus thought Sebastian was about to spring him, and maybe he was right.  Marcus, overwrought and hounded, was suddenly fighting for his life.

‘You’re a bunch of delinquents,’ he continued.  ‘Upstart, thinking you can get to me.  You’re a liar.’

He was restrained from moving further down the table by a councillor’s burly arm.  People jumped to their feet.  Joel could hardly see over bobbing heads.

‘It’s been you all the time, little cheat, behind this … this attack on me.  How dare you come in here, cap in hand!  Why should anyone believe you, you little faggot?’

Sebastian had been backing away, slipping towards Sharon, who was coming round to the rescue.  Now he put up his hand, palm outwards, to ward his mother off.  He squared up to Marcus and the wings on his shoulders looked ready to unfold.

Marcus’s trouble was that he’d asked Sebastian a question so he had no choice but to wait until Sebastian answered.  There was a pause of utter quiet.

‘Because I have nothing to hide.  And I’ve had enough of you,’ Sebastian said.

The room was arrested.  It was as if everyone held their breath.  Joel had a chance to notice Tom with his fists clenched to his head, and Steph’s face jerking – crying?  Dazza’s potato head sprouted from another corner of the room.  At the back, against the wall, sat a small girl in red gumboots, one of Dave’s kids, on shoulders above a bald head that was no doubt Dave’s.  From the walls, photos of past councillors stared down at Sebastian.  Did they all agree with him?  Was that, in fact, what everyone wished to say?

Marcus made a lunge and was bounced back by a couple of councillors.

‘Dad!  That’s enough!  Enough!’  Marc’s voice roared, but not through the microphone because he was loping down the table towards his father.

A scuffle broke over Marcus and he yelled, ‘Get your hands off me!’

The shouting loosened the crowd’s bonds.  People charged and milled and gabbled around Joel as he propelled himself to the table.  If he could just pull Sebastian out into the fresh air, everything would be all right.  That was what Seb had meant when he said he’d had enough.  That’s what he’d always been saying – he needed air, he just needed to get out into fresh air.

When Joel reached the table, shoving himself past roiling bodies, using his skateboard as a spade, none of them were there.  Sebastian, Sharon, Marc, Marcus, and the other councillors had all gone.  Joel made for the back door, wading against the current of people targeting the front door.  Locked.  Now he was in the wake of the push to get out the front way.  No one let him through.  He craned and jumped, but saw no friends anywhere.

In the street, when he finally popped out, he saw Steph on the footpath, twisting her skirt, staring at everyone with eyes like a drunk beggar.  People streamed past her, ignoring her, turning to each other in excited voices.  Horns blared as cars drove through the mass of people still crossing the road.  A glare of headlights lit up the street, throwing fearful shadows of bent legs and looming heads.  Catcalls, shouts, and laughter everywhere.

‘Steph, where’s Sebastian?  Jesus, you look bombed, are you okay?  Where is everyone?’  Joel caught Steph’s hands to make her face him.

‘I’m waiting for my brother,’ she said, as if Joel was a stranger.  ‘The others … gone home.  I said I’d wait.  My family … gone to hell.’  Her eyes were bloodshot, her hands shook in Joel’s.  For the first time, he noticed that the metal rings in her face did not make her look tough.

He was knocked sideways by a coatless Marc.  Steph grabbed her brother’s arms and burst into tears.  Her vacant look turned into anguish.  Marc clung to her, squeezing his eyes shut.  Soldiers at the end of a battle in which there were no winners.

‘How … where …?’ Joel said.

‘They’ve raided the mill and started making arrests,’ Marc managed.  ‘Don’t know where Dad’s gone.  Police are searching for him.  It’s all over, they’re going for him tonight.  My part’s finished, and I wish it had never begun.’

‘I don’t want them to hurt him!’ Steph wailed.

‘Let’s go home.  Let’s see Mum,’ Marc said, shuffling Steph away, still clinging tight.

A man rushed up.  ‘Marc!  What’s your take on the meeting?  What’s the upshot, man?’

Joel recognised the editor from the paper.

‘It ended in uproar.  That’s what they say, isn’t it?’ Marc swallowed, trying to pull himself together.  ‘I think you can add there was general agreement that the town needs a new start.  And the council likes the skate park idea.  Formal vote at the next meeting.’

‘Sounds about right, but –’

‘I have to take my sister home.  Ring me tomorrow at … no, not at the office.’

‘I’ll try the mobile.  And … sorry about your old man, yeah?’  The newspaperman gave Marc and Steph a business-like nod.

As they stumbled off, Joel called, ‘Where’s Sebastian?’

‘Good question,’ the editor said.

‘Sharon took him home,’ Marc called back.  ‘Don’t worry, he was brilliant.’

The editor looked after them, tapping his mouth in thought.  ‘Wish I’d had me camera,’ he said and showed Joel his teeth before walking away.

***

Joel thumped his board onto the road and burned down a side street to Sebastian’s.  From Bonang Street came the odd call and lowing of cars, but here, solitude.

Sharp footsteps to the right then a voice, ‘Joel!  Wait for me, please.  I need to talk.’

Joel’s instinct was to speed up, but something stronger made him jump from his board and turn.  Curiosity?  Maybe, because he’d never heard that shit-scared tone in that voice before.

‘What do you want?’ he said, already changing his mind, foot on his deck again.

‘To talk.  Come on.  Can’t you do me this last favour?  After all we’ve been through.’

The shape of Marcus showed sideways along a fence, smooth behind the woolly trunk of a paperbark tree.  The outline of his suit was square, but his hair was ruffled.

‘I saw you and followed.  Just a few minutes, Joel.  Over here, will you?’

The voice was a taut fishing rod, and Joel glided towards it on his board.  At the curb, he stopped, but Marcus jerked his head and made for the shadows of a driveway.

‘Stop eating yourself up with fright, boy.  I haven’t a gun on me.  I need your help.  My god, I’m surrounded by pygmies.’

Joel followed Marcus down the driveway.  He heard a soft scratch and saw a cigarette glow into being.  Fragrance of sedative smoke.

‘They’ve tied me to a stake, Joel.’  Long slow puff, a snort that was perhaps derisive.  ‘If I run now, they’ll convict me anyway so … change of plan, yes?  Time to stay and fight.  In court, if that’s what they want.  I’m not scared of those pygmies.’

‘Why don’t you go home?’

‘Yes, I could do with the sleep, I’m a walking shadow.  A poor pointless player on an empty stage, Joel.’  The orange tip of the cigarette swayed out and in, as Marcus opened his arms to show the emptiness.  ‘But I still have a chance.  That’s where you come in.’  The orange tip stabbed towards Joel.  ‘You must tell them about our meetings, with a twist.  You’re to say I was not involved.  Tell them I suspected my staff of taking advantage of me, of shifting their haul through the mill.  They’ve already arrested Gibson, Seyton, and the others.  Yes, tonight.  They have photos of them, but not me.  I’ll pay you well, Joel.’

‘Marcus … it wouldn’t matter what I tell them.’

‘What?  You dare …?  Oh, why do I bother, you’re right.’

Joel stepped back, away from Marcus’s stamping foot, grinding the butt.

‘Ha!  You speak the whole truth for a change, boy.  In the past, you’ve equivocated.  Led me on with half-truths.  You and my daughter played the game a little differently to how you suggested it.  That list you gave me?’

Joel gave a nod that he doubted Marcus could see in the dark.

‘Oh, it checked out.  It helped … to keep me here.  But those people knew I was coming, and you know why?  Because they gave you the list in the first place!’

Marcus laughed outright, and Joel took another backward step.

‘So much have I guessed, and your silence confirms it.  I thought you handed me hope, but you lied with the truth.’

Holding his skateboard up as a shield, Joel edged behind a rubbish bin.  He didn’t sense a gun, but the man was losing it.  No doubt about that.

‘Oh, go away.  Pygmies, all of you.  None of you can hurt me.  Not you or that other faggot.  Not her, the daughter I once had.’  Joel saw Marcus’s shadow wilt against the fence.  ‘And now I even suspect my son …  Get out!

Joel followed the word with the deed.

***

At Sebastian’s house, it took him a full five minutes to calm down and work out that no one was home.  He stopped pushing the doorbell and tried to think.  Was there a sign on the door saying, back soon?  No.  Fuck.  Well, he’d wait.  They’d come back, had to come back.

Sharon’s wagon swung into the street, and Joel was on the road hailing it before it pulled up.  Sharon got out.  Alone.

‘Come in,’ she said from the door.  ‘Sebastian asked me to tell you all about it.’

Inside, having paid and shooed off Veronique’s babysitter, she made Joel a cup of tea.  She had just returned from the intercity bus station, she told him.  Sebastian was on the night bus to Melbourne to stay with his grandfather for a few days.

‘All right … A few days … I suppose?’  Joel asked, wanting so much for her to tell him something he could bear to hear.

‘It’s just until he can get into a student hostel in the city.  I know of a good one.  I’m going to tee it up for him tomorrow.’

‘A hostel?  But why?  When’s he coming home?’

‘He’s … going to stay in Melbourne.  Finish school there.  That’s why he left.’

The tea slopped over the top of Joel’s mug.  ‘Look, I know tonight was a stuff-up, but he was fantastic, everyone was saying so.  Oh Jesus.  And it’s sweet about the skate park now.  Things will work out here, they will, I know.  Why did you send him away!’

Sharon leaned back in astonishment and said, ‘I thought you knew my son better than that.  As if I could make that kind of decision for him.  Joel … I wanted him to stay.’

For a mad moment, Joel tensed to get up and go, to run out and chase that Melbourne-bound bus, but he stared at Sharon and saw the truth in her eyes.  Sebastian had chosen to leave alone.  He’d waited and waited for someone to come with him, but in the end he’d simply had enough.

‘Can I ring him?’  Joel felt himself imploding.

‘Of course.  He hasn’t got a phone on him now, but I’ll give you the Melbourne number.  Don’t try tonight, he won’t be there for hours.  Joel, go home and get some sleep, love.  Don’t cry, you’ll start me off.  Things will look better in the morning, they always do.’